A movie to see: Romero
I don’t ordinarily like “message”
movies, particularly religious ones, and generally avoid them. Ordinarily they
are moralistic, simplistic, weak on context, lacking in subtlety and nuance,
mediocre in production values. That’s probably the reason that the 1989 biopic
Romero sat unwatched on my shelf of DVDs for several years.
For some unaccountable reason I decided recently
to take it down and watch it. At first I thought, here we go again. But thanks
largely to a refined, dignified performance by the late, charismatic Puerto
Rican actor Raul Julia, I found it deeply moving.
For years I have kept a file on the atrocities
in El Salvador during the 1980s, when many priests and nuns were murdered by
government death squads. Even so, I did not realize quite how much the
responsibility was located among just a very few military leaders. On April 11,
The New York Times ran an article
about General José Guillermo García, who escaped prosecution in El Salvador by
receiving protection to move to Florida. (The US was deeply involved in
supporting the military regime during the Cold War.) Better late than never, El
Salvador has asked for his extradition. Here is an excerpt from the Times article:
[The Salvadoran judge] found “clear and convincing evidence” that
General García “assisted or otherwise participated” in 11 violent episodes that
scarred the Central American country, including the 1980 murder of Archbishop
Óscar Arnulfo Romero as he was saying Mass in the capital, San Salvador.
The judge also found that General García helped conceal the
involvement of soldiers who killed four American churchwomen later that year.
He “knew or should have known” that army troops had slaughtered the villagers,
including women and children, in the hamlet of El Mozote in December 1981,
Judge Horn ruled.
In an unusually expansive and scalding 66-page decision, Judge
Horn wrote that “these atrocities formed part of General García’s deliberate
military policy as minister of defense.” He added that the general “fostered,
and allowed to thrive, an institutional atmosphere in which the Salvadoran
armed forces preyed upon defenseless civilians under the guise of fighting a
war against communist subversives.”
For three decades, these three atrocities in
particular have haunted everyone who cares about justice. The El Mozote
massacre, in particular, was described in a remarkable piece of journalism. In
1993, The New Yorker magazine devoted
its entire issue to just one article by Mark Danner (John Hersey’s
“Hiroshima” was the first). In his piece, Danner described the
horrors witnessed by a woman named Rufina:
Through the window she saw soldiers leading groups of men from the
little whitewashed church—blindfolded men whose hands were bound behind them.
Each pair of soldiers led five or six men past the house of Alfredo Márquez and
took them out of the hamlet in various directions. After a time, she saw her
husband in one group, and as she watched, along with young Cristino, who had
climbed up next to her, eager to see what was happening, they both saw
him—Domingo Claros, twenty-nine-year-old woodcutter, husband of Rufina and
father of Cristino, Maria Dolores, Marta Lilián, and María Isabel—bolt forward,
together with another man, in a desperate effort to escape the soldiers. But
there was nowhere to run. The men of the Atlacatl leveled their M16s and
brought both men down with short bursts of fire. Then the soldiers strode
forward to where the men lay gasping on the ground, and, unsheathing their
machetes, they bent over them, grasped their hair, jerked their heads back
sharply, and beheaded them with strong blows to the backs of their necks.
The El Salvadoran government denied that the
massacre had happened, and U.S. representatives were never able to confirm that
it had actually taken place, so for many years Rufina was one of the only
witnesses to the crime. Then, in 1992, a group of forensic experts was allowed
to excavate the scene:
Finally, in October, the experts began to dig. And there, on the
third day, in the silence of the ruined hamlet of El Mozote, all the words and
claims and counterclaims that had been loudly made for eleven years abruptly
gave way before the mute force of material fact. The bones were there, the cartridges
were there; the sleeping reality of El Mozote had finally been awoken.
This Holy Week, it is not just the sins of
individuals that need to be confessed, but the sin of entire societies
including our own, and the grip of the power of Sin on the whole human family.
The film about Archbishop Romero barely scratches the surface, but it may
impress you enough to want to learn more. Romero is one of the 20th century
martyrs whose statue was placed above the entrance to Westminster Abbey in
From the Gallery of 20th-century martyrs at Westminster Abbey-